…The Misconception of Black Environmentalism: African-Americans Speak Out On Earth Day

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The common misconception that African-Americans do not care about environmentalism is not only erroneous but a gross misrepresentation of the overwhelming role African-Americans play in protecting this planet.  Traditionally stereotyped as caring more about civil rights and  community activism, the Black voice in the environmental conversation has often been subjugated  and silenced both intentionally and unintentionally.   However, the tide is beginning to turn in the 21st century as a new crop of young philanthropists emerge as powerhouse players in the green space.   Lending their voice to important issues such as farming, recycling, and climate change, they are proving what statistics already tell us:  Blacks role in the protecting the environment has always been on par with other racial groups – specifically over the past two decades.   

April 22, 2013, marks International Mother Earth Day most commonly known as Earth Day.  This day was conceptualized by John McConnell in 1969 and founded (again) by Senator Gaylord Nelson in 1970 who popularized it as a national movement and environmental awareness campaign.  Since Earth Day’s inception, approximately 1 billion people in 192 countries have participated in celebrations designed to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

However, despite the movement’s success at being able to mobilize one billion people to speak up in support of Earth Day, one voice and major contributor to the important environmental conversation is often not heard:  the Black voice.  Ten years ago Paul Mohai, author of “Dispelling Old Myths: African-American Concern for the Environment,” found that Black people are more likely than White Americans to make lifestyle choices that help protect the environment in three categories:  buying pesticide-free foods (37% of Black people vs. 29% of Whites), consuming less meat (16% of Black People versus 10% of Whites) and driving less (44% of African-Americans versus 64% of Whites).  Though this report was published nearly a decade ago, this study validated that Black people were actively participating in making decisions that were good for this planet despite living in conditions that were detrimental to their health.   In other words, despite living in communities with high noise levels, abandoned homes, trashy streets and  pest-infested living environments – which 26%  of African-Americans listed as top environmental problems facing their communities versus 3% of Whites – Black people have still continued make decisions that positively affect their local environments.  Their actions to address theses issues have taken place outside the normal “green activist” channels, however, with most African-Americans choosing grassroots level involvement versus formal participation in formal environmental groups like the Sierra Club of World Wildlife Fund.

Bottom line is Mohai’s report proved Black people care about the Earth over 13 years ago, but recent statistics still show the misconception that Black people are not “green-minded” persists.   In a report entitled, “Within Mainstream Environmentalist Groups, Diversity is Lacking,” Washington Post recently profiled Fred Tutman, one of 200 riverkeepers in the world who is African-American.  As a professional environmentalist, Tutman recognized there were not many environmentalists that looked like him.  A representative from Chesapeake Bay Foundation agreed stating “the environmental movement has a bit of a reputation as being a wealth white community.” The word “bit” is an understatement. With the African American Environmentalist Association (AAEA) reporting 69% of environmental organizations refusing to report the number of minorities employed within their ranks, it’s no wonder Mr. Tutman feels there are so few black professional environmentalists.  Tutman’s sentiments and the lack of reporting received by the AAEA further validate Mohai’s point, Black participation in the green movement takes place in non-traditional spaces.  Black community’s significant contributions toward protecting this earth is not being done as members of national and international environmental organizations, but that does not mean nothing is being accomplished.

My grandmother used to tell me that closed mouths don’t get fed, she is right.  She was also right when she said closed mouths don’t get heard.  To shed light on the African-American contribution to the Green movement, a new crop of African-American young philanthropists have emerged to contribute and speak out about the active role the Black community is playing in environmentalism.  Bryant Terry (pictured left) has published several cookbooks and hosts a web series that raises awareness about the negative impact the industrial food system has on health and the environment.  Quentin James, a young African-American millennial is the National Director of the Sierra Club Student Coalition and has worked tirelessly to make being environmentally conscious sexy.  There is also  Karri Fulton, an African-American youth campaign coordinator for the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative who has worked with the United Nations to increase students of color at their climate change summit.  Finally,  African-American young philanthropists have prioritized environmentalism as a charitable priority with donors like Daphne Charles (pictured right) and Elda Auxiliaire currently fundraising a Giving Circles Project with Capital Cause for the Institute for Student Health. Their $2,000 financial contribution will ultimately enable 25 children in Washington, DC’s Ward 5 to grow their own community gardens and learn healthy eating habits.

Terry, James, Fulton, Charles and Auxiliare represent five of many young, Black voices who are advancing the green movement and shattering the misconception that Black environmentalists don’t exists and that the African-American community isn’t “green-minded.”  Their worthwhile acts – representative of a preexisting active Black movement in Green space, even in the most poverty-stricken spaces –  serve to amplify the African-American environmental voice in such a way that it becomes respected among  so many other voices.

Author: Kezia M. Williams (@keziamw) | Chair, Capital Cause (@capital_cause)

4 responses

  1. Very informative post! I think its important to highlight how our community has contributed to the environmental movement. It was also great reading about the good philanthropic work many young leaders are doing around this issue. Most people wouldn’t know that environmentalism can be connected to philanthropy and that this work is on a 365-day cycle, not just Earth Day.

  2. @Awordorthree – thank you and kudos to Jordan Howard for the work she does! i will definitely keep her in mind for future posts | @jamarr – you are right, we should remember to take care of our environment 365 days of the year and not just on Earth Day | @nirvanic – roger that! :-)

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